Tied Up in a Bow: A Brief History of the Hair Ribbon

‘Tis the season for wrapping everything under the tree up with a bow. This year, to borrow a phrase from the great Diana Vreeland, why don’t you consider trimming yourself with ribbons too? There is nothing quite as festive as a velvet bow pinned neatly under atop the crown of the head or a strand of silk looped around the end of a braid. The appeal of the ribbon as a hair accessory is, however, no seasonal trend–it perhaps one of the most timeless adornments. 

Ribbon-making likely dates back to the early Middle Ages, when the invention of the horizontal loom allowed for the creation of more complex woven textiles. Ribbons quickly became a sartorial trend, pinned to clothing and wrapped into hairstyles. Chaucer notes the existence of ‘ribbands’ as accessories in his work. Visual evidence of the popularity of ribbons is widespread throughout Renaissance works, worn in great, swooping quantities by Filipo Lippi’s angels and as a dainty crown of bows in Lorenzo Lotti’s more secular Portrait of a Woman Inspired by Lucretia

Lorenzo Lotto, Portrait of a Woman Inspired by Lucretia, 1530-1532, oil on canvas, 96.5 x 110.6 cm, The National Gallery, London, inventory no. NG4256.

As the Renaissance came to a close, a more specific trend in ribbon-adorned hairstyles took hold: that of the lovelock. Worn almost exclusively by men in the late 16th and early 17th century, the lovelock was a long strand of hair worn draped over the chest and often tied with a bow or a rose made from ribbon. The lovelock was a deeply sentimental style, intended to signify the wearer’s romantic devotion to their beloved as it drew emphasis towards the heart. 

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Henri II de Lorraine, 1634, oil on canvas, 204.6 x 123.8 cm (80 9/16 x 48 3/4 in.), The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., accession no. 1947.14.1.

In the late 18th century, the Dutch engine loom once again revolutionised the production of ribbon, allowing for six different types of ribbons to be produced simultaneously on a single loom. This industrial innovation spurred an unprecedented frenzy for ribbons of all kinds, which is apparent in the styles of Rococo France. Both men and women of the time were draped with ribbons and bows from the tops of tall wigs down to the pointed toes of effeminate court shoes. 

 

After the fall of the French monarchy, ribbons remained a popular accessory, even amongst those who had most vehemently opposed the Rococo style. Women who wore decidedly anti-Rococo Regency era dresses often topped their looks with bonnets bedecked in bows and flowers made from ribbon. These bonnets would remain popular for women throughout the 19th century, though ribbons as an accessory for men largely fell out of fashion. The Victorian affinity for elaborate braided hairstyles provided an ample canvas for yet more ribbon to be pinned into women’s hair. By the end of the century, a fashionable women’s hat could contain a decadent ten to twelve yards of ribbon–plus more woven into her tresses beneath. 

An illustration of Regency bonnets from Costumes Parisiennes, 1811, via https://historicalsewing.com/trimming-regency-bonnet-ideas-instructions.

 

In 1939, classic films Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz presented their respective starlets as pictures of wholesome femininity, their hair trimmed with bows of red and blue. Hair bows became stylish accoutrements for women of the silver screen and their fans. Bows took on flirtatious connotations, as evidenced by a 1944 spread from LIFE magazine that assigns various romantic meanings to the placement of a young lady’s hair bow, not at all dissimilar from the purpose of the lovelock popular over four centuries earlier. In contemporary Russia, the young woman’s hair bow had a far more political purpose. Girls wore two large, gauzy white bows known as bantiki as part of their school uniform to demonstrate their loyalty to the Soviet Union.

‘Girls Hair-Do Reveals Love Life,’ LIFE magazine, 15 May 1944, https://books.google.com/books?id=eE8EAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA70&dq=hair+bow+reveals&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjGqI-9x-7jAhVFmVkKHSXZC3oQ6AEIKjAA#v=onepage&q=hair%20bow%20reveals&f=false.

From Renaissance angels to stars of the silver screen, the hair bow has been a steadfast and stylish companion for nearly the entirety of written dress history. Well into the 20th century, French ingenues like Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, and Anna Karina again made the hair bow a part of 1960s stardom, lending it a coquettish quality by styling it with winged eyeliner and short hemlines. In even more recent years, pop stars Madonna and Lady Gaga have put their outlandish touches on the ribbons in their hair as well, enlarging them to comical sizes and pairing them with clashing punk studs. Whether it is used to communicate romantic entanglements or political affiliations, ribbon is an infinitely customisable accessory, and looks just as pretty tangled in tresses as it does tied up under the tree.

Please note that the Documenting Fashion blog will be taking a brief holiday to make bows and be merry! We look forward to sharing dress history with you again regularly in the new year.

By Ruby Redstone

Sources:

Anna Purna Kambhampaty, ‘From Marie Antoinette to JoJo Siwa, Hair Bows Have a Surprisingly Meaningful History,’ Time, published 14 August 2019, https://time.com/5642621/jojo-bows-history/.

FIT Fashion History Timeline, ‘Love Lock,’ published 10 August 2018, https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/love-lock/.

Katya Soldak, ‘This is How Propaganda Works: A Look Inside a Soviet Childhood,’ Forbes, published 20 December 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/katyasoldak/2017/12/20/this-is-how-propaganda-works-a-look-inside-a-soviet-childhood/?sh=2a927cd33566.

National Museum of American History, ‘For your Easter bonnet: Silk ribbons,’ published 13 April 2017, https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/easter-ribbons.

‘Ribbons,’ Encyclopedia online, accessed 17 December 2020, https://www.encyclopedia.com/sports-and-everyday-life/fashion-and-clothing/clothing-jewelry-and-personal-adornment/ribbon#:~:text=Ribbons%20were%20so%20identified%20with,Knights%20of%20Bath%20wear%20red.